Dr Luke Sullivan is a chartered clinical psychologist and the creator of Men’s Minds Matter. He began to specialise in men’s mental health ten years ago, after he worked as a researcher in the London borough of Southwark and found that apart from punitive services for men, there was a complete absence of gender-sensitive information and research on men and boys.
— This is article #46 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
I have been interested in the mental health and psychological wellbeing of men and boys for over a decade. It’s something I’m passionate about and it has led me to question and challenge assumptions and prejudice that exists towards men. I wanted to share some of my experiences of working with men and boys and where I see opportunities to help.
My work in the NHS is within acute care services. We know men are more likely to take their own lives than women so it’s a place where many men eventually turn up for help, willingly or not. In my experience in crisis services and from my work in men’s mental health there seems to be some common experiences shared by men. These can help in some way to account for the high rate of male suicide.
One of the most consistent findings is that men seek help less than women. This is not just help-seeking from professionals but also help-seeking from friends, families and communities. Crisis services are the last point of call for people experiencing psychological difficulties. Not seeking timely help increases the likelihood that mental health crises occur which is when many suicides happen.
Self medication and risk taking
A further problem is that men have significantly fewer support networks. They often have fewer close friends to turn to when they are struggling and they’re less likely to turn to families or communities for support. We know that after the age of 30 men’s social networks begin to shrink and in later life isolation becomes particularly problematic for men. If men fail to nurture and maintain relationships outside of work and the family they reduce the range support we can draw on when life becomes tough.
Popular culture would have us believe that on average men are less emotionally accessible and able than women. If true this may also have implications for men when they do turn to their friends or professionals for support. For example, many men may not feel equipped to help their male friends with emotional problems or they may not consider it appropriate for their male friends to disclose emotional difficulties. The exact nature of the difference between the emotional experiences of men and women is not really known. What we do know, however, is that men do have emotional needs.
When men present to services they sometimes do no quite fit the criteria for a mental illness. For these men they are less likely to receive diagnoses for common mental health problems such as and anxiety and depression. Men may also identify less with these terms and are therefore less likely to receive statutory services which could be of help.
Men also have a tendency to express their emotional distress externally through problematic behaviour that can affect both them and others. Men use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism more so than women, they are more likely to gamble and take risks, and men are more likely come into contact with the criminal justice system due to their behaviour. Such behaviours receive a more punitive response which often lacks compassion for the underlying causes.
I see many of these observations as potential problems for myself and for the other men in my life. Anyone can be struck by a mental health problem given the right conditions. In such circumstances we would all need some form of compassion, help and support. Without it crises inevitably occur as problems worsen. It’s at these times that people are more likely to take their own lives.
The absence of any thinking, action or interventions for men and boys stimulated me to create Men’s Minds Matter as an online resource providing information on their mental health and wellbeing. We wanted to build on conversations that address the high rates of suicide and challenge the stigma attached to mental health specifically from a male perspective. We also wanted find a ways to intervene to help address some of the issues described above.
One of our proposals is for the creation of a national federation of men’s institutes. We have developed some guiding principles for an MI based on helping men to become more connected with each other and their communities. This would help to reduce isolation and increase social support for people to fall back if and when needed. It would harness men’s collective strengths and use these creatively for the benefit of their communities. Most of all it would be a space thoughtfully created specifically for men.
There is growing momentum in the field on men’s mental health but there’s a long way to go before we fully address the psychological challenges faced by men and boys in the UK. Nevertheless the conversations have well and truly started. The face of maleness will be changing as we reclaim and redefine what it means to be men. It has to, too many men are dying.
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men.
The views expressed in these articles are not necessarily the views of insideMAN editorial team. Whether you agree with the views expressed in this article or not we invite you to take take part in this important discussion, our only request is that you express yourself in a way that ensures everyone’s voice can be heard.